Last Friday, June 30th, I attended my first ever Comic Con. Walking into the Colorado Convention Center, I had no idea what to expect. Sure, I’d heard about the San Diego Comic Con (also known as THE Comic Con) filled with actor panels, photo ops, book signings, and exciting news about the latest casting announcement for the next superhero blockbuster. I’d seen pictures of the intricate and lovingly-crafted costumes; Comic Con is the SuperBowl of cosplay, after all—a chance to see and be seen.* But now I can say from experience that these events are so much more than what the stereotypes would lead you to believe. The seasoned Comic Con goer might find my ignorance laughable, but I’m writing this recap in an attempt to demystify the whole thing for other enthusiastic late-comers/converts like myself.
It may seem obvious, but Comic Con is not just about comics, although the massive exhibition hall is scattered with dozens of comic stores selling their wares, plastering rare editions of Hellboy and Batman on twenty-foot-high displays and unveiling thousands of comics in crisp plastic packaging neatly organized in alphabetical order. Much to my delight, I stood in line with Kronk and Yzma from the animated film The Emperor’s New Groove (a guilty pleasure left over from childhood), a convincing Zelda, and several Hufflepuffs sporting black Hogwarts robes and wielding wands. No, Comic Con isn’t just about comics; rather, it is a celebration of fandom in its most general form. The inclusive atmosphere was unlike anything else I’d ever seen. Do you love something that may considered even remotely “nerdy” or “geeky”? Come to Comic Con! Can’t get enough of those superhero blockbusters? Come to Comic Con! Do you love paranormal romance novels? There’s an author panel that might interest you — just come to Comic Con! The same goes for the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Disney, Doctor Who, anything by Hayao Miyazaki, Firefly, Stranger Things, Avatar the Last Airbender, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, any video game you can name, and more besides.
Why was I at Comic Con in the first place? I presented on a panel titled “Comics for Alternative and Formative Assessment across the Curriculum” with two former colleagues from CU Boulder, Jessica Appleby and Micheal Sebulsky.** What are educators doing presenting at Comic Con? Well, the Denver Comic Con is unique from others in that it offers three full days of pedagogical programming for those teachers who incorporate, or are curious about how to include, popular culture in their classrooms. You can see the impressive full lineup of educational panels from the 2017 Denver Comic Con here.
As the title of our panel indicates, Jessica, Micheal, and I discussed the possibilities for including comics in formative and alternative assessment. While we focused specifically on our experiences as post-secondary instructors, we tried to make our suggestions relevant to all levels because there teachers in the audience who taught at all levels from kindergarten to high school. Micheal touched upon the basics of effective assessment and the need for clarifying expectations, and described how comics can be used to teach material in his field, music theory. Jessica described how students wrote their own epic poems as an alternative summative assessment for her class “Medieval Epic through Game of Thrones”, and she also showed examples of her French students drawing comics to practice the two simple past tenses. I presented my take on using comics in the foreign language classroom as a formative assessment tool to monitor student learning throughout the semester by using a series of reading response activities and in-class discussions.
Other notable panels I attended were a presentation about using Star Wars to teach rhetoric, writing, and critical thinking and a fantasy author roundtable about the different ways these writers incorporate magic into their narratives. As enrollment numbers in the humanities continue to drop, I see the necessity to innovate and try to bridge the divide between the “high” literature and culture that most scholars study and the popular culture that many of us love, our students included. I don’t advocate sacrificing academic rigor, but rather getting creative and forging new connections across disciplinary boundaries. Any educator interested in making their subject more fun for students by incorporating pop culture into their classes should definitely come to the Denver Comic Con. They even give teachers a free pass to one day of the Con!
Finally, I want to thank the non-profit organization Pop Culture Classroom that puts on the Denver Comic Con. In addition to this organizational feat, they offer workshops for educators throughout the year and provide extensive free resources, including entire lesson plans for all levels! (just in English, though). Another incredible pioneering program Pop Culture Classroom runs is the “Literacy Education in Adult Detention (LEAD) with Comics”, a six-week program for incarcerated adults in Colorado. Congratulations to Pop Culture Classroom for another successful Con, and I can’t wait to be back next year —most likely in costume or at least with a Doctor Who t-shirt— ready to learn from other instructors pushing the boundaries of pedagogy at all levels of education.
*Did you know there are professional cosplayers? I didn’t either.
**Thank you, Jessica, for organizing our panel!